To fill the gap left by the al Qaqaa munitions story that was preempted by the New York Times, 60 Minutes ran a feature Sunday night on the travails of our fighting forces in Iraq. It portrayed an under-equipped military placed in danger by flawed policies and politicians more interested in pork than protecting our troops. It was typical of that kind of story, chiefly anecdotal and drawing conclusions out of proportion to the particulars presented. I keep waiting for some fact-based stories on the up-armored M1114 Humvee. There are currently 5,100 operational in Iraq with 724 more en route. This is in addition to the 8,700 armor kits (CBS referred to these as “so-called ‘add-on armor’ kits”) sent to Iraq to upgrade standard Humvees. But most stories make it sound like our guys are all riding around in pickup trucks. Or take, for example, the notion that we are sending out troops without body armor. The fact is that most of the troops have the finest state-of-the-art body armor in the world, and the rest have the previous generation–which is also better than any other country’s body armor. Soon they will all have the latest gear. And the reason why most of the wounds in Iraq are in the extremities is precisely because our armor is so good at protecting the rest of the body.
60 Minutes might have run a different story. They were developing a Michael Moore-esque piece about how small-town America is bearing the burdens of the war–the customary class-war stereotype that disadvantaged youth are driven to military service by lack of economic opportunity and sent to fight in a war they care nothing about to defend the interests of the rich. They tracked down the mother of a Latino private from Texas who had been killed in Iraq and suggested to her that her son was part of this unfortunate group, needlessly sacrificed. She laughed. She told the interviewers that her son was not driven by desperation but inspired by patriotism. He had given up a job with a salary many times his Army pay, because he wanted to serve his country. He died doing what he set out to do. Let’s see 60 Minutes air that footage. And where are the stories about other people like this, the Pat Tillmans of the world, who are motivated by ideals and willing to risk their lives for something greater than themselves? The narrative could open at Memorial Hall with the names of the Harvard men killed in the Civil War. Perhaps they could recount the story of the Yale graduating class of 1917, in which one third showed up at the commencement ceremony wearing khakis because they had volunteered for service in the First World War. We are a much better country, a much more idealistic, decent, and resolute people than the mainstream media chooses to depict.
As you might guess, in the eyes of most of the press only bad news is really “news.” For example, reporters call the Pentagon on a weekly basis looking for troop suicide data. They are told the truth–that military suicide rates are down in general, particularly so in 2004, and are below the rates of the same age group in the general population. Their universal response is something like, “Darn, then I have no story.” Think about that–good news, even exceptional news, does not qualify as a story. And there are more good news data out there that never get out. Desertion and AWOL rates are down. Conscientious-objector-status claims are down–which shows that fewer people are trying to find ways out of combat. Services are reaching their recruiting quotas. Retention (i.e., reenlistment) rates are up, and are highest among those troops serving in Iraq. Think about that a minute, these are people who could be sent home who choose to keep serving overseas, and at rates higher than those who have not gone over. The active-duty retention rate is so high that the National Guard, which draws heavily from the prior service active duty population, is having shortfalls. You might see that story, but it would be spun to make it look like the result of protest against the war.
Where are the stories about the numerous grassroots volunteer efforts to support our troops and their families? There are hundreds of these groups all over the country, started by public-spirited citizens who want to help our men and women in uniform. How about a story about the Military Pets Foster Project, that helps care for the pets of people on deployment? Or Operation Iraqi Children that helps soldiers in their own volunteer efforts on behalf of the children of Iraq? Or Have a Heart/Adopt a Soldier that allows people to send comforts of home to troops who might not have a family to support them? There is an extensive list of these organizations here. Surely there are enough of these groups for good feature stories. In my opinion, these people are exhibiting the virtues we should seek to emulate and inspire in this country.
Some other idea for stories: interview cadets and midshipmen at the service academies and ROTC. You will find that they are more motivated and ready to serve than ever. How about stories on the lengths to which our troops go to limit collateral damage during combat? About how ours is the most humane fighting force in history? While talking about casualties, how about a story about the amazing work done by our military medics, about how this is the most survivable conflict of its length in our history, with the lowest casualty rates and the highest survival rates among the wounded?
Another great story is set in the Iraqi town of Wynot. The townspeople used to dislike the Coalition forces, but U.S. troops helped them organize a city-council election to demonstrate that we were there not to be occupiers but to help them find ways to run their own affairs. Now the townspeople have a completely different view of our troops. Or how about the Iraqi contractor who brought his irrigation project 25-percent under budget and returned the unused money? You can glean scores of interesting stories from the web if you search enough, from service-member blogs, public-affairs websites, and some local papers, especially in military towns. Most of the reporting comes from the units in the field, the people close to the scene who live it daily and know the facts. Nevertheless, it seems as though you cannot give away a good news story about our military in Iraq. The mainstream press is not interested. However, I am betting that most Americans are.